“People think our life is easy
But we’re living under pressure
Just to be on top
And to give the best that we can give you
And to never let you down
We’ll keep strivin’ for perfection
N.E. Heartbreak is coming to your town..”
-New Edition, “N.E Heartbreak”
Why do I love teen pop? Why would music intended solely for kids entering puberty appeal to someone entering their 30s? I’ve been mulling this over ever since I started Digital Get Down almost three years ago. Most of the answers are obvious: nostalgia. Pining for freewheeling teenage years I never had. Living vicariously through the music of young people. A knee-jerk love of any music that isn’t critically respected. Respect for music designed to empower and comfort teenagers, who need that more than anybody. All of these reasons are valid, in their own way.
What brings me back to teen music, though, is the people involved. The singers and the dancers and the songwriters and the producers – but mostly the singers. The entire industry of teen pop is predicated on finding young, good looking people who can sing well enough to be thrown in a recording studio to sell the hottest hit by the hottest hitmakers, thrown on television and social media to sell the product, making a little money for themselves while making a TON of money for their record company. Pretty people do the legwork, while nameless creeps in suits make bank. These are young people not chosen for their talent, their ability to write songs or their ability to express themselves. Young people who push everything else out of their lives, drop out of school, can’t see their families or their boyfriends or girlfriends, end up devoting their entire lives to pushing a product for some nameless suited men just so they become stars themselves. Sometimes it doesn’t even work: they put out one album that hits, the next one fizzles, and they’re old news. The suits have made their money, so they replace the 19 year olds with 14 year olds who can make money for them again. And the once-promising teen stars are spent by their 20s. They’re burned out and disilluioned and nobody wants them anymore.
This is what happens most of the time. I’ve found myself staring at boy band and girl group album covers, the O-Towns and the B*Witcheds, wondering who these people really were. What did they have to say? What are their hopes and dreams? What kind of music would they make if they didn’t have a filter? If they didn’t have to make it just for one audience? I’ll never know. Nobody will ever know. Their careers ended too soon.
But the success stories. That’s what makes it all worth it for me. When teen pop kids, treated like nothing but a replacable commodity, fight for creative control, get it, and make a record so good that every hater is proven wrong. Records like The Big Room and Celebrity and Into Your Head: man, that’s what this is all about.
That’s why I’m thrilled to talk about New Edition’s 1988 record Heart Break. Because of all the teen pop breakthroughs I can name, this one is the best and most satisfying. I’d wager it’s the best boy band record ever made. Never has a boy band managed to take control of their own destinies as well as New Edition did here, never has one silenced critics as effectively, never has one managed to pack in this much personality and verve, and never has one ever been able to express what it’s like to actually be in a boy band as well as this one.
Why exactly is Heart Break my favorite boy band record, and the culmination of everything Digital Get Down stands for? Let’s dig right on in, because there’s nothing I would rather talk about.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Remember where we left New Edition last? It’s OK if you forgot, dummy, I’ll refresh your stupid memory: 1986. Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike were in a vulnerable state after the departure of founding member Bobby Brown the year before, leaving the guys to tour All For Love as a quartet. This left them open to the most dreaded teen pop curse in all the land: the “One Member Leaves And EVERYTHING FALLS APART” curse, the same that claimed the lives of our beloved Spice Girls, Take That, and countless others.
Doubt was setting in. The boys were approaching their 20s, leaving behind the precious teenage innocence that had made their first few records so charming. The only record they managed to put together as a foursome, Under The Blue Moon, was a squeaky-clean doo wop covers album that only white American parents could love. It wasn’t an embarrassment and kept them in the public eye, but it was dangerously out of touch in the pop landscape of 1986, the same year hip hop hit the mainstream with Run DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. If New Edition stuck with their “Jackson 5 For The Eighties” style, they would soon get swept under the rug.
So what did the guys do? Well, they did two things. Two wonderful things, two things that helped make Heart Break the perfect boy band album for 1988. Let’s talk about them!
JIMMY JAM & TERRY LEWIS
There was one other innovative pop record in 1986 that stood out among the rest: Janet Jackson’s Control, the record that defined Janet as a modern pop titan and introducted the world to the production talents of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two of the tip-top best pop producers of the 80s. Former members of Morris Day and the Time, Jam and Lewis gave Control a unique sound – R&B smashed together with discordant 808s and samples borrowed staright from hip hop. It was a blunt and aggresive sound, jarring for anybody used to the softer side of R&B but perfect for a young independence-hungry Janet Jackson. It struck a chord, and would result in one of the best pop genres to grace is beautiful Earth: New Jack Swing.
I don’t know who it was, but someone in New Edition’s camp must have realized Jam/Lewis were the perfect dudes to help turn the squeaky-clean boy band into a powerhouse Man Band. While it could be argued that some of the autonomy was pulled away from the NE guys here – Jam/Lewis, with only a few exceptions, wrote every song on Heart Break by themselves – their songwriting and production fits NE’s personalities so perfectly that it feels personal. Heart Break, like Control, is a statement of self-actualization and self-worth, a watershed moment in the lives of these young men captured on record, highlighted and emboldened by two of the best producers in the game.
I failed to mention earlier that Bobby Brown wasn’t the only New Edition member eager to split from the group. Shortly after he left, none other than lead singer Mr. Ralph Tresvant was thinking of leaving too, eager to start a solo career and (maybe rightly, at least at the time) thinking that NE was a sinking ship. This left the other guys in a precarious position, because Christ who the heck would care about a pop group consisting only of Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, and Ronnie Devoe? That sounds like commercial poison!!
Ha ha! Ha. Hey. Hey there. Alright then.
Hey! Hi! Hi.
So seeing that Ralph was ready to go, the boys were eager for a replacement, and made yet another brilliant move that would bring Heart Break to a new level: they picked Johnny Gill, a friend and contemporary who notched a couple of minor R&B hits as a young man but was ready for something new. Long story short, Johnny wouldn’t be Ralph’s replacement for long – Ralph would change his mind and rejoin New Edition real quick, making Johnny more of a replacement for Bobby Brown – but his voice would bring so much to the New Edition sound, and to Heart Break.
Gill’s voice, right next to Jam and Lewis’s clattering power-production, is the most exciting new sound in New Edition’s arsenal circa 1988. The dude has a massive voice, full-throated and powerful, an overwhelming presence. His voice is so strong it almost threatens to overshadow his bandmates, who wisely choose not to overuse him. Johnny’s voice is mostly used as a secondary lead, providing a dramatic push whenever the boys need it, an awesome tool at their disposal. And once Johnny finally gets to sing lead, it’s the last track on the record and it’s fucking main event status. But we’ll get to that later!
I don’t want to take anything away from Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike or even Bobby here. They’re all fine singers, and bring their A game to Heart Break. But Mr. Gill is in another league, and provides the boys with a perfect counterpoint. Whereas the rest of the gang still have those sweet innocent boy voices, Johnny sounds like a man. Meshing these voices together spells out the theme of Heart Break in a subtle way: they’re still boys at heart, but adulthood is coming for them, ever-present, inescapable.
HEART BREAK: A BOY BAND TALE
How many boy band records feel personal? Real? Like the boys are being honest with you, giving you a part of their actual personal life?
Lots of boy bands try to do this. Take a look at the writing credits on the last few One Direction albums and you’ll see Harry, Niall, and the rest of the boys’ names popping up on more than one track. Go dig up your beat up CD jewel case of *NSYNC’s Celebrity (you know you still have it) and take a look at those writing credits. Justin and JC co-wrote most of those songs. Same thing with the Backstreet Boys’ Black & Blue, which features a couple songs written solely by the boys themselves.
Despite their assembly-line image, boy bands do want to be honest with their audiences, to give them an idea of what they’re really like. But listen to any of the music I listed above, and you’re not going to get much out of it in terms of personality. Even Celebrity, with soon-to-be-solo star Justin Timberlake tearing it up, doesn’t feel personal or intimate. It’s just a good pop album.
We can’t blame the boys for this. It’s the machinery. How the heck are you going to fit a personal and honest voice on a mass-marketed pop record, fighting through a maze of songwriters-by-committee? Can’t do it. It’s a cloudy foggy dank mess and it’s impossible to get noticed. That’s the raw deal of being in a boy band: you get instant fame and adoration, but you don’t get control.
Heart Break stands alone. No foggy dank shit mess here. This is five young men giving their audience a portrait of who they are and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. It’s up there with A Hard Day’s Night in the pantheon of autobiographical teen pop art, but where the Beatles portrayed themselves as freewheeling fun youths, New Edition are out to prove that they’re the best and hardest working group out there, assertive and original but also vulnerable and thoughtful. New Edition are out to prove that they’re human, not pop puppets but hard working young men who deserve our resepct. And they pull it off.
I’d like to give you a rundown of exactly what makes Heart Break distinct from every other record of its kind. This is the one time I get to talk about this album so I’d like to try and get everything out, everything I appreciate and love about this record, everything that makes it what it is.
So yeah – let’s do that!
Heart Break‘s introduction sets a tone, a feel. We hear an eerie synth that leads to distant crowd sounds, and then we hear the guys’ voices, floating, phasing in and out, otherworldly:
“In our world, all things must change
Just as New Edition has been rearranged
Emotionally hurt, we shed a tear
But through your love, our tears have disappeared..”
A creepy little poem. The implication here is that NE are waiting backstage, but it feels more like they’re floating through the netherworld, beings divorced of time or space, watching their adoring fans among the starry night. Before things get too weird, we are reminded that this is New Edition: “That’s why this is dedicated to you / so just sit back.. and let us entertain you.”
BOOM! Synth horns snap in, electric guitars squeal, and an over-excited announcer introduces us to the NEW New Edition. And we rip into “That’s The Way We’re Livin,” the boys’ ode to working hard and giving everything for their fans, while we hear fans screaming even LOUDER in the background. So we have a gateway to what New Edition have become: an adult, powerhouse pop group that knock crowds the fuck out night after night. This does not feel like the beginning of a run-of-the-mill pop record – it feels like we’re in on something big. And we are!
The story doesn’t really begin until “Where It All Started.” This here is New Edition’s take on a boy band tradition, the self-aware power anthem. A chance for a boy band to celebrate their greatness at the height of their powers, to prove to the world that they are unequivocally the best out there.
And “Where It All Started” pulls no punches. It’s a direct attack on New Edition’s competition, making it clear that they were the first and best boy band, the originals, the innovators, and that everyone else is a cheap copycat. I’m at a loss to find boy band lyrics that snip at the ass with more fierceness than this one: “It’s nice to be the original / That all the counterfeits like to bite off / We only take it as a compliment / When they copy some of our material..”
It’s a bold move, espcially one coming from a group billed as the “Jackson 5 of the Eighties” in their early years. But as we’ve talked about in previous reviews, New Edition broke out of that mold pretty quickly, and 1988 would see a ton of ripoff groups coming up and banking on their success. “Instead of being clones / Why don’t you think of something on your own?” Let’s remember that New Edition were only a year away from being eclipsed by a group dubbed “the white New Edition,” the New Kids On The Block, managed by New Edition’s former manager Maurice Starr. Hangin’ Tough would sell millions more than all of New Edition’s 80s records combined with music directly knocking off Candy Girl, just because New Kids were white and New Edition were black.
On “Where It All Started,” New Edition call bullshit, putting the New Kids on notice before they even had chance to jack their style. It’s a thrilling moment, a statement of purpose from a black group in a white-dominated pop world, and – with due respect – makes it hard to listen to the New Kids seriously after hearing it. New Edition were always superior, and they show it here.
THE BIG SINGLES
Heart Break is an 80s pop album, so it needed to two great singles to get over: a high-energy pop track, and a tender ballad. So we have “If It Isn’t Love” and “Can You Stand The Rain?” both written by Jam/Lewis. “If It Isn’t Love”, Heart Break‘s debut single, is a shot across the bow, showing off the perfect cohesion between Jam/Lewis’s production and New Edition’s maturing R&B, an exciting minor key dance track that takes a sudden major-key turn in its bridge. “Can You Stand The Rain” is one of my favorite boy band ballads ever, in rare company, an atmospheric and heart-heavy piece of beauty. Instant classics.
I don’t have much else to say about these two, other than they’re great, and they show off what a good fit Jimmy and Terry were for these guys. These are the two you’ll find on greatest hits comps, and they deserve to be.
Also, before we continue, I need to encourage you to watch the video for “If This Isn’t Love”, which features some HOTT dance moves and helps illustrate the themes of Heart Break better than anything I could say here.
THE SKITS / “N.E. HEARTBREAK”
Ah yup, Heart Break has skits. Nobody likes skits and I know why. They’re dumb alot of the time, and the skits here aren’t a whole lot better. But credit where credit is due: Heart Break was doing skits before even De La Soul did them (another notch on their innovations belt), and they’re important to the vibe New Edition are trying to get across here. All three skits are just some backstage patter between the guys, nothing more nothing less, but they’re fun little windows into their personalities. We get to hear them doof around with vocal exercises, argue over which “honeys” they’re gonna smooch on, and congratulate themselves on a job well done after a long tour.
And it’s not just the skits – we also hear the guys bullshitting between songs, shouting stuff like “YOU DIDNT KNOW WE WERE COMIN’ BACK LIKE THIS!” and “YO MIKE, DONT EVEN SWEAT IT!” They’re small lil moments, but considering how guarded and invincible boy bands like to portray themselves, it’s cool and refreshing. I feel like I know New Edition, hearing a record like this. I’m learning something about them as people.
Heart Break‘s first skit leads into the titular “N.E. Heartbreak,” an amazing mix of problematic tendencies and forward-thinking New Jack power. Let’s not ignore what is problematic here. “N.E. Heartbreak” does not paint a wonderful picture of NE’s female fans, portraying them as needy jezebels trying to get a piece of the boys’ fame. It’s also established on a later track, “I’m Coming Home,” that these guys all have girlfriends they haven’t seen in awhile. So uhhh, fellas, can we talk about this? What’s goin on here??
We can’t ignore or hand-wave the misogyny here. But “N.E. Heartbreak” is an important moment, and I’ll tell you why. Since Candy Girl New Edition have taken shots at straight rap, with varying degrees of success. But “N.E. Heartbreak” marks the first time they got it right. Listen to “Pass The Beat” and “Kinda Girls We Like” from their first couple of records and come back to this one. Those first two tracks are cute and fun, sure, but the guys sound more like they’re talking in rhyme than rapping.
“N.E. Heartbreak” sounds like actual rap, or at least close enough to it. I’m not going to sit here and tell you these guys were great rappers by any stretch, and you could argue that there’s more speak-singing here than actual rapping. But the guys have actual flow here, for the first time in their careers. This was only the beginning: you can trace a direct line from “N.E. Heartbreak” to Bell Div Devoe’s Poison. This, right here, was New Jack Swing’s Big Bang moment.
“N.E. Heartbreak” also has an unusal amount of pathos for a boy band brag track. It’s a feint. A ruse. The skit lead-in tricks you into thinking you’re about to hear the NE guys bragging about their sexual conquests on the road, but instead we get a list of failures, heartbreaks, lonely nights. According to “N.E. Heartbreak,” the life of a boy band on the road is empty, unfulfilling. “People think we don’t get lonely / But we’re far away from home / One minute, 20,000 people / But then they go home, we’re alone..”
New Edition aren’t telling stories of hard love on the road, or even routine sexual failure. They’re telling stories of trying desperately to connect with another human being in the haze of fame, only to fail time and time again. “Is it me she wants, or is it my fame?” When you’re in a boy band, is it even possible to tell who loves you for who you are, especially when you’re 18-19 years old? When you’re already too young to totally understand what love is? It’s a confusing, terrifying, miserable situation, the feeling that fame has clouded your capacity to love and be loved, the curse of being forever alone. That is “N.E. Heartbreak.” “Beware of N.E. Heartbreak / spreading fast, and there’s no cure..”
“N.E. Heartbreak” is Heart Break‘s core, its still-beating heart. It’s simultaneously the most forward-thinking musical moment of the record, and also its most emotionally crushing. My God, it’s everything.
“Competition” is the one song on Heart Break that sounds like it could have popped up on All For Love or even New Edition: light synths, pre-programmed drums, saxophone. There’s no aggressive drum-n-bass clattering here, and it sounds so musically distinct from everything else on the record that I suspect Jam/Lewis didn’t produce it (although I can’t prove this). So it’s easy to call “Competition” a step back, a filler track.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. “Competition” was solely written by Ralph Tresvant, which explains its simpler sound. It’s like a song Ralph wrote on a lonely tour night, alone in his hotel room, sipping a diet Coke and staying up too late, trying to get a grip on how far he’s come and where he’s going. From what I’ve heard, it’s a song about Bobby Brown.
Again, I can’t verify this, but I imagine Bobby’s shadow must have loomed large over the recording of Heart Break. Even if Johnny Gill was about as good of a replacement for Bobby as they could get (and, if you ask me, an upgrade), he was still new. He didn’t grow up in Boston with the rest of the guys. He wasn’t there right from the beginning. He didn’t have the touring war stories, he didn’t brave the Maurice Starr divorce. As well as Heart Break manages to hide it, New Edition became a band of permanent disunity from the loss of Bobby. It wasn’t just the loss of a bandmate, it was the loss of one of their best friends.
So I like to imagine “Competition” as a sweet little song from Ralph to Bobby, an outstretched hand to a former friend turned enemy. “This competing with friends / will it never end? / I’m losing all of my patience / I need a way out..” That line is the giveaway. “Competition” tries to frame itself as a world-healing anthem, almost as if it’s trying to hide its true intentions, but those lines above lay it all out. Let’s remember that Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel came out the exact same day as Heart Break, and the two toured together as a double bill that same year. It makes you wonder: did they talk backstage? Did they even acknowledge each other? When Ralph sang “Competition” night after night, did Bobby know?
Who knows. Either way, I’m glad “Competition” is on the record, in direct contrast to the brutal slapback of “Where It All Started.” New Edition could have attacked Bobby with the same righteous contempt they did for Maurice Starr and his white boy ripoffs, but they couldn’t do it. The respect and the love was too deep. Despite the differences that drove them apart, “Competition” shows that New Edition still cared about their biggest competitor, and weren’t afraid to show it.
“BOYS TO MEN”
Heart Break‘s last act is beguiling, quiet. “Competition” leads to the atmospheric ballad “I’m Coming Home,” and the narrative of the record comes to a close: the tour is over, the guys are going home to their girlfriends, and on to the rest of their careers. This chapter of their lives is over. And before we leave, we end with “Boys To Men,” the moment where the boys take stock in what they’ve experienced, what they’re feeling, and where they’re going.
This is hard to write. “Boys To Men” is the one song on Heart Break I always come back to, the one I can’t get out of my head. This whole review could have just been about this one song. Never have I heard a boy band look at themselves in the mirror so directly, and report back with as much clarity as New Edition do here. It’s right there in the opening lines, lines that rattle and twist you:
“Growing up can be a pain
You’re not an man until you come of age
We’ve given up our teenage years
In the effort to pursue our careers
Who assumes responsibility
Of having to support our families?
Who’s protecting us from harm
Is there anyone around that we can trust?”
Here’s the whole story, sung by Johnny Gill in that initimable full-throat emotion voice. They’re tough lines for me. I started Digital Get Down with the goal of helping people understand teen pop in a more thoughtful way, to give it a second look, to look into the lives of the artists putting their heart and soul into work most people shrug off. It was a lesson for me, too. I wanted to understand the people behind these records, to respect them and celebrate their effort even when the album didn’t turn out to be that good. I wanted to give teen pop the same consideration and thought that rock and indie got from other critics.
But there’s only so much I can do, as much as I try. I can empathize, but I can never understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be young and black in the Boston projects, to get pulled out of school at age 11 for a risky shot at stardom. To have to rehearse dance moves and singing day in and day out with very little reward. To finally get a little success, only get screwed over by a shady manager and see barely any money from your massive radio exposure and immensely successful tour. To ditch that manager, only to see them form a group that rips you off and becomes more successful just because they’re white. To be the breadwinner for your family at age 15, living in fear every day that your next record is going to flop and you’ll lose everything. You’ll fail your mother and father, your brothers and sisters. You friends and loved ones. Yourself.
“So we search for answers to our questions
Looking for an answer
No answers but we’re taught a lesson everytime
Through mistakes we’ve learned to gather wisdom
Cause lifes responsibility falls in our hands..”
This was New Edition’s entire life. The life of a teen pop group. After three years of doing this blog, I don’t think that life came into clearer view for me than it did the first time I heard “Boys To Men.” Teen pop success is a never-ending struggle that never has a good ending. Either you fail and you’re a forgotten wash-up, or – even worse maybe – you succeed and you’re constantly under media scrutiny, constantly trying to top yourself, never satisfied. For three years I’ve tried to understand, but I’ve never had an experience like this. The reporting has been done, and it’s “Boys To Men.”
So what else can I say? I feel like I’m starting to repeat myself. “Boys To Men” is the most important boy band song, to me. It’s everything being in a boy band is about, every reason boy bands deserve your utmost respect. You will find it all here.
KEEP ON LEARNING, KEEP ON GROWING..
Man. Where do we go from here? For New Edition, Heart Break was their swan song, at least for the 80s. The guys would go separate ways by the end of ’89, pursuing side projects without formally breaking up. As much as I love their records, splitting up might have been the best career decision they ever made. Within only the next year, all five members of the group would storm the charts: Ralph with “Sensitivity,” Johnny Gill with “Rub You The Right Way,” and the remaining guys with the all-powerful Bell Biv Devoe. This isn’t even counting Bobby Brown, who was still riding off of Don’t Be Cruel‘s juggernaut success. By 1990, all 6 former members of New Edition had become New Jack superstars, pop innovators, legends. The Jackson 5 of the 80s had become some of the most exciting pop performers the world over.
And Heart Break led the way. I don’t think the group intended it to be a final statement, but it feels like one. New Edition wouldn’t come together for another record until 1996, with both Johnny Gill and Bobby Brown, after they’d all become successful on their own and their egos had inflated to the size of weather balloons. They’d never be those little kids from Boston again. They’d never be the same.
So it goes. I hope we remember the story of New Edition in the 80s as an important one, the story of six guys who made pop music better, more personable, more fun. They were the finest boy band to grace this Earth. And I’ll miss them.
And what else am I going to say? I’ve said my piece. This is all I’ve got left for now. If you’ve hunkered down and read all of this, thank you. I hope you’ve come to respect New Edition the same way I have. If I’ve managed to give you even a little piece of my love for teen pop, that’s all that matters. That would mean the world to me.
If not, hey, can’t say I didn’t try.